A Change in the Course of Language Rights (1963-1969)


Although indigenous peoples had a foothold in North America prior to Europeans, it was the anglophones and francophones who gave birth to the Canada we know today. By the 1960s, the two major linguistic communities had still not managed to find common ground, but it had become obvious that it would be in Canada's best interest to acknowledge its linguistic minorities, and that it would take more than occasional concessions to allow all its citizens to live in harmony. The country was ripe for a profound change, as w ere many othe rs in the world. D uring the 1960s, in fact, numerous countries witnessed substantial political change. Many colonies became sovereign states and, simultaneously, minority groups were eager to improve their lot and accede to a more desirable and more equitable status. Canada too navigated its way toward national liberation, and toward the acquisition and advancement of language rights. The 1960s also marked a growing involvement by the state in the lives of citizens across the globe. Language would prove no exception.

Photograph of Lester B. Pearson
Library of Parliament
Information and Documentation Branch

The coming to power of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson (from 1963 to 1968) signalled a certain will to change on the part of the Canadian government. Wishing to preserve national unity, Pearson devoted particular attention to bilingualism, establishing a royal commission charged with examining the state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada. This was also the era of the rise of the sovereignist movement in Quebec; of the arrival on the federal political scene of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who favoured individual rights; and of the passage of the Official Languages Act (1969), which would usher in the era of language laws in Canada, with the federal law followed by another on multiculturalism.

At the same time, in certain provinces, particularly in Ontario and New Brunswick, francophone minorities were demanding substantial, and not merely cosmetic, change. For its part, Quebec was going through an effervescent period known as the Quiet Revolution, a cathartic time characterized notably by the advent of a more modern s tate, socioeconomic action, the affirmation of a Quebec identity, and linguistic awareness. The courts would later intervene in certain recalcitrant provinces in order to have minority rights respected. The advent of language rights and laws was at hand!

The Laurendeau-Dunton Commission

Formed in 1962, The Royal Commission on Government Organization, the so-called "Glassco Commission," dealt with the question of bilingualism in governmental organization. That year the Glassco Commission tabled a report on the management of the public service. The following year the Canadian government authorized the Civil Service Commission to establish a language training centre. The annual cost was estimated at $900,000, but in 1970 the Language Training Centre had an available budget of $9 million. It was estimated that it would take 20 to 25 years of external recruitment to fulfill the bilingual needs of the public service.

Three months after his election (April 1963), Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson created a royal commission of inquiry mandated to examine the question of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada. In a letter to all the provincial premiers in May 1963, Mr. Pearson wrote

In a speech I gave on December 17, 1962 in the House of Commons on the difficulties and advantages presented in our country by the duality of language and culture established by Confederation, I proposed that a vast inquiry be held on bilingualism and biculturalism in consultation with the provincial governments. This proposal was greeted very favourably in Parliament and also, I think, in the country.

The idea for such a commission had been proposed the year before by journalist André Laurendeau, who was very worried about the increasingly strident secessionist voices in Quebec and the indifference of English Canada. Mr. Pearson called upon Laurendeau to head the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. As with many Canadian commissions, a co-chairman of English Canadian language and culture was called in: journalist Davidson Dunton. The "Laurendeau-Dunton Commission" became better known in English as the "B and B Commission" (for bilingualism and biculturalism) and in French as the familiar "Commission BB." As stated in the mission of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, much was at stake:

Inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada and the measures that should be taken to safeguard that contribution.

Laurendeau and Dunton first arranged to meet with all the provincial premiers to collect their opinions on the question. Next they held regional meetings that further highlighted Canadians' profound ignorance of the problems the Commission was attempting to resolve. More than 400 briefs of every description were presented to the Commission, whose work no doubt went a long way to making Canadians aware of the importance of preserving and promoting not only cultural and linguistic duality, but diversity as well. Between 1964 and 1967, the Commission ordered at least 165 studies, 24 of which were published. This intense scientific activity yielded a better understanding of Canada's linguistic realities. Based on demographic, social, educational, economic, and legal data linked to language and minority communities, the government had the information it needed to pinpoint certain deficiencies and act accordingly. One could say that the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission left an important legacy of research. Following two years of work and meetings across the country, commissioners were unequivocal about the dangers facing the country:

Everything that we have seen and heard has convinced us that Canada is going through the most critical period in its history since Confederation. We believe that there is a crisis [...]. We do not know whether this crisis will be long or short. However, we are convinced that it exists. The danger signs are numerous and serious.

According to the commissioners, if this crisis were allowed to continue and to intensify, it could eventually lead to the destruction of Canada; however, if it were overcome, the crisis would contribute to the emergence of a more vibrant and richer Canada. The members of the Commission were not oblivious to the difficulties frequently encountered in countries where multiple cultures and languages coexisted, but solutions ensuring a viable social peace were nonetheless possible. One of them involved establishing an equitable policy for the country's major linguistic communities.

Developing a Language Policy

The preliminary report, tabled in 1965, recommended making federal institutions more bilingual. The report also recommended establish ing bilingual work units as well as the creation of bilingual districts. As early as 1966, bilingualism became a badge of honour in the National Capital Region. In tandem with the B and B Commission, Parliament Hill was busy discussing and debating fundamentally Canadian symbols, such as the national anthem and the flag. On April 6, 1966, Prime Minister Pearson officially announced in the House of Commons a policy on bilingualism in the civil service:

The government hopes and expects that, within a reasonable time, a situation shall prevail within the civil service whereby

a) it shall be common practise that oral or written communications within the civil service are made in the official language of the author's choosing [...].

b) communications with the public shall, as a matter of course, be made in official language of the client.

The report of the B and B Commission was published in 1967 in four volumes (six in 1969), the most important one dealing with The Official Languages (Book 1), Education (Book 2), The World of Work (Book 3), and The Federal Capital (Book 4). In their final report of 1969, the commissioners recognized the importance of biculturalism in the Canadian context:

A culture expresses a community of experience and attitudes, and flourishes only if the individual lives with others who participate in this community. This means that a culture will be fully expressed only within the society that embodies it; elsewhere it will live, certainly, but a restricted life, in keeping with the number of its members and the vigour of the institutions it possesses. Whence the capital importance of the notion of two distinct societies [...].

The Report of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission recommended that English Canada agree to negotiations to reconfigure the Canadian constitutional system so that the country's francophones feel more at home. The first book dealt with question of the status of the two official languages. In it the authors made a series of recommendations, including the amendment of Section 133 of the Constitution Act of 1867, which would begin as follows: "English and French are the two official languages of Canada." The commissioners also recommended that New Brunswick and Ontario recognize English and French as official languages for their province s; they made the same recommendation to the other provinces for cases where one linguistic minority, English or French, came to constitute 10% of the population. The Commission recommended the creation of bilingual districts within the provinces themselves, in regions where one linguistic group, French or English, attained a 10% threshold. The 13th recommendation of the first book called for the creation of the position of Commissioner of Official Languages in provinces declar ing themselves bilingual.

The second book of the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism dealt with the question of education. One of the recommendations was to recognize the right of Canadian parents to have their children schooled in the official language of their choice, subject only to the demographic viability of the minority. The massive document was divided into three parts. The first was aimed specifically at the linguistic minority, francophone or anglophone, in each of the provinces. The second dealt with the teaching of a second language, in this case French or English, while the third part examined the image that schools projected of the other cultural group, particularly in their teaching of the history of Canada. There seemed to be two different versions of history—in French-language textbooks, the commissioners noted that history accorded a dominant role to New France, while the British Conquest was described as a catastrophe, whereas in English-language textbooks, history seem ed to begin during the years preceding the Conquest, which was presented not as an end, but as the beginning of British North America. Other recommendations addressed the historical basis for federal support of instruction in the official language of the minority.

Certain recommendations of book three (The Work World) aimed at fostering linguistic balance within the federal public service. According to the Commission, 21.5% of federal public servants were francophones in 1965. Measures had to be taken to encourage greater francophone representation at all levels of the federal government.

In book four, the commissioners made recommendations concerning bilingualism in the federal capital. The goal was to make the national capital (Ottawa) perfectly bilingual. When it came out, some Canadians thought that the B and B Commission was ahead of its time.


At first, the B and B Commission was perceived as a Quebec affair, and official languages as something of interest only to minorities. Official bilingual policy incited opposition in certain regions of the country, notably in the West; Canadians of Ukrainian and German extraction, or of other non-anglophone or non-francophone origins, wanted to know why the federal government accorded less importance to their culture than to the culture of the far less numerous francophone minorities in western Canada. Meanwhile, the resignation in 1968 of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and the arrival of his successor Pierre Elliott Trudeau took some of the hard edges off the work of the biculturalism commission. In the early 1970s, Trudeau announced in the House of Commons that his government would adopt a "policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework." In order to secure the acceptance of official bilingualism, the Trudeau government also thought it wise to adopt those recommendations of the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission aim ed at preserv ing the contributions of other "ethnic" groups (with the exclusion of the aboriginal peoples) to the cultural enrichment of Canada.

These recommendations called for the adoption of a policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework. This change marked a change in language policy and g a ve birth in 1971 to the policy of multiculturalism. On October 8, 1971, the Canadian government announced its policy of multiculturalism—without multilingualism—whose four objectives were stated as follows:

1) The government of Canada will support all of Canada's cultures and will seek to assist, resources permitting, the development of those cultural groups which have demonstrated a desire and effort to continue to develop a capacity to grow and contribute to Canada, as well as a clear need for assistance

2) The government will assist members of all cultural groups to overcome cultural barriers to full participation in Canadian society.

3) The government will promote creative encounters and interchange among all Canadian cultural groups in the interest of national unity.

4) government will continue to assist immigrants to acquire at least one of Canada's official languages in order to become full participants in Canadian society.

However, it was clear to the commissioners that linguistic duality would materialize in Canada only if the majority accepted its fundamental principles and actively embraced them, as minorities were unable to impose it. In proposing concrete measures, t he Laurendeau-Dunton Commission marked a turning point in Canadian history. Since the publication of the B and B Commission's report, Canada has earnestly taken up bilingualism, thanks in large part to the work of the Commission. One of the most important measures put forward by the Commission was for a federal law on official languages.